By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Velvet Buzzsaw is the most peculiar film I have seen so far this year. It feels dated, predictable, tacky and occasionally trashy. In hindsight though, maybe it wasn’t trashy enough? It feels like a satire on the art community, albeit one that we’ve heard too many times before, and it never actually plays up the horror enough to take it into trash cinema territory.
Directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, Velvet Buzzsaw sees a bunch of vapid art dealers ‘acquire’ a collection of paintings by a recently deceased artist for their modern art gallery in LA. However, when they begin to display and sell the paintings, a supernatural force begins to stalk them one by one.
With Nightcrawler (not the X-men mutant), Gilroy tackled the unscrupulous brutality of the media and did so in the most engaging and straight forward fashion. Velvet Buzzsaw at first comes across as a satirical kind of black comedy; the opening credits are composed entirely of morphing oil paintings and Marco Beltrami’s score sounds like the prologue of a Wes Anderson film.
However, as we meet the gallery’s disciples including Toni Collette’s bitchy art adviser ‘Gretchen’, ‘Coco’ the overworked and frazzled assistant played by Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer, and curator-in-training Josephina played by Zawe Ashton, we’re spoon fed revelation after revelation about how pretentious, greedy, and utterly ridiculous the art world is. To be honest, it’s nothing new and nothing particularly subtle in delivery either – it reminded me of Nicholas Winding Refn’s oversaturated and similarly bogus Neon Demon. Majority of the supporting cast feels as though they’re there for two reasons. 1. to peddle Gilroy’s tiring ‘the art world is f*cked up’ philosophy and 2. to die bloody and excruciating deaths at the hands of art demons.
The artists seem to have a bit more of an idea of what is going on and bring an air of self-awareness that perhaps according to Gilroy, only the artists themselves have in this industry. They seem to know and understand what’s going on. Street artist on the peak of stardom Damrish (Daveed Diggs) brings a welcomed element of sincerity and curiosity to the film, as does John Malkovich’s tired and weathered Piers who refers to his studio as a ‘slaughterhouse’ for ideas.
Gyllenhaal and Russo are the real stars here though. The two were fantastic in Nightcrawler in the way they played off each other’s greed and contempt in the news industry. Here they return as Morf, the ostentatious art critic, and Rhodora, gallery curator and ex-member of girl punk band ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’. Their chemistry is very watchable and even entertaining and funny at times. Gilroy clearly gels with these two actors and its a winning combination.
What doesn’t gel though is the horror element, although some of the scenes are somewhat creative, colourful and symbolic – like gallery handyman Bryson, one of the only nice characters in the film, played by Billy Magnussen, getting pulled into a painting by monkeys at a gas station named ‘HUMBLE’. There is virtually no set up for suspense though and everything ends up feeling like a Jackson Pollock take on Final Destination. I did enjoy the ‘sphere’ scene though. You’ll know it when you see it.
The death scenes are just never quite humorous nor over the top enough to be considered something fun like trash cinema though. Gilroy needed to either turn up the satire and fine tune the writing, or simply go balls out with the horror.
Velvet Buzzsaw is tonally all over the place but I can’t give it any less than 3 stars. I have a sneaking suspicion that with multiple viewings, we might find more than just paint and blood here. Could this be a future cult classic?
Now showing on Netflix CZ.